Acting as your own advocate - negotiating for yourself - is a difficult and often impossible role to play. For the consumer, companies have all the vital information on their side, which is quickly evident in high-stakes deals like real estate and time-share, less evident (but equally clear) in lower-stakes contracts like cell-phone plans. A national start-up navigator service for consumer issues raises this question as the core of their business model. Our cultural research for them includes the following intelligence.
For example, this month in Orlando I was subjected to a royal case of don’t negotiate your own deal – an upselling conference at my Sheraton (now owned by Marriott) timeshare resort, where I’m an owner. Trying to master the fast-flying acronyms and case coding numbers was difficult enough. Pressure from a hard-sell confrontational agent makes it impossible for even long-term owners to know what they are buying. Even more difficult is determining the true cost to the family budget over a long-term future of juggling annual dues, reservation weeks, location options, and point credits within the system. Things got heated when the agent did her best to make my existing title purchase sound as if it had lost most of its value, a common upselling gambit.
I ended up walking out the office door and reporting the encounter to the sales manager, who apologized and promised me some points for pain and suffering. But this hard sell experience left a bad taste, making me question why I had to put up with such grief just for some basic information about the resort’s latest deal. I am sure other members signed contracts for thousands of dollars that won’t justify the expense.
This failed sales appointment wasted my time and energy and left me (I thought) with no option but to walk away, which I did. I felt incompetent to bargain – which, up against the sales pro, I was.
This would have been an ideal time to entrust negotiations to my own personal agent—if I had one. A consumer-issues navigation team would make an ideal choice in this situation, parallel to a real estate buyer’s (rather than seller’s) agent. The buyer’s agent works for you, not the homeowner, and has only the consumer’s interests in mind (working on salary, not commission). This assures the buyer of unbiased advice, separated from profit motive.
Consumers rely on companies for policies, services, and contracts they already own but don’t understand and can’t navigate. They have a more difficult, ongoing problem: How to restore use and prevent losses they can’t afford to absorb. If the issue is electricity, the power loss extends from appliances to alarm systems, including security, and “your computer, your life.” The refrigerator goes lame—every item of perishable food is instantly at risk. Your car gets towed and your entire transport system goes down—including work and school commute. These problems can’t be fixed on your own. They are built into larger systems that require negotiation savvy the average consumer can’t hope to acquire in hours, days, or weeks. Even a lifetime.
So now you are forced to advocate for yourself as your own negotiator, a position world-class experts like Kenichi Ohmae, in the classic The Mind of the Strategist (1982), advises something we don’t expect to hear: Giving up. In his expert view, by using strategic insight, consumers operate better and more effectively by refusing to even attempt difficult or complicated negotiations with consumer services. Instead they need to hire out to seasoned experts who navigate deep, dangerous, and turbulent waters on the customer’s behalf (p. 276).
Ohmae urges the consumer to always “Question the prevailing assumptions of an industry” – that companies can and will take care of the needs of their customers in the face of promoting their own agenda, especially when the customer’s interests conflict with the company’s. It is time to devise ways to take up the consumer cause as buyers’ agents as negotiators on the consumer’s behalf, cancelling the usual need to wonder where the agent’s interests and intentions actually lie.
Negotiation is a situation of understanding your own aims and position, and those of your adversary. But the best person to advocate for your goals is not yourself, but a third-party guide knowledgeable about the territory, the ground rules, and your goals. Not as the principal, but able to work objectively and without the emotional investment you bring to the table.
“Today’s world is one of acceleration and change, so even the future is holding its breath. In this climate, the single most important skill is the ability to negotiate.”
– Herb Cohen, Negotiate This! By Caring, but not T-H-A-T much (2003)
Whenever you are forced to advocate for yourself as your own negotiator, you find yourself in the position world-class expert Herb Cohen advises against. This is the same warning given by Kenichi Ohmae in his work on the strategic mind for competitive advantage. Negotiation is fundamental to all social relations, but has a special role in the strategy of being a consumer with the issues inevitably involved with that role.
In Negotiate This! the follow-up manual on negotiating since How to Negotiate Anything in 1980, Herb Cohen outlines the situations and players across many negotiating scenarios based on his broad experience as negotiator and a background in history, law, and international relations. His aim is to discover the dynamics and rules of negotiation as a way to resolve the divergent desires and interests of two or more parties. Affecting the attitude and behavior of the other players goes just part of the way toward achieving one’s own ends.
It is actually a mentality, a way of approaching this process, that Cohen’s professional experience reveals. His case studies show how changes in your own thinking and action can be the leverage that transforms the attitude and approach of the other side. The process is dynamic, complex, and learnable, and results in creative new outcomes neither side could initially envision. Examples from the author’s portfolio include the seizure of the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1966, The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, The Camp David Summit of 2000, and the worldwide terrorism epidemic, along with strikes, union negotiations, and class action suits.
One of Cohen’s frequent lessons is that negotiating for yourself is often not effective or even a good idea. As in his subtitle, the worst person to negotiate is yourself. Why is this? First, we care too much about the outcome and our position, which limits and distorts the perspective needed to understand our true position—and underscores the “me versus them” conflict character of the engagement. It prevents seeing clearly what the field of options could be as well as identify the best and worst ones, as well as those that work best for both parties and so are more likely to get agreement. As Cohen puts it, “When I negotiate on behalf of myself, it’s not a game anymore, it’s my life, my legacy. So the result is often plainly pathetic” (p. 4).
Second, we give ourselves too much authority to accept or reject any terms we might be offered—without being confident that we know what those should look like. This can be answered by limiting that authority by saying, “That sounds good to me but I’ll have to check with my board…or substitute the word banker, attorney, adviser, boss, or even spouse” (p. 54). What you are looking to leverage is the deep knowledge of the industry expert adviser as the third party. The goal is to find ways to hire out this level of authority for better, faster results than you yourself can achieve.
To illustrate the wisdom of this stance, Cohen relates the case of Moses and Aaron freeing thousands of Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt in the Old Testament book of Exodus, calling this “the first hostage negotiation in the annals of history.” Moses’ brother Aaron was delegated by the Lord to be the spokesman, rather than Moses, in bargaining with Pharaoh for the release of the Hebrews from bondage. Aaron, more articulate than Moses and his stutter, was able to achieve the release because he stayed out of the direct deal-making, where the principal was emotionally invested and cared too much about the outcome.
As Cohen put it in his first book, “Negotiation is a field of knowledge and endeavor that focuses on gaining the favor of people from whom we want things. It's as simple as that….The ‘winners’ seem to be people who not only are competent, but also have the ability to negotiate their way to get what they want.”